“As soon as I heard about the shooting I knew why he’d done it.” Amazing words delivered in a matter-of-fact tone—with more than a little authority behind them. Like James Holmes, the speaker was doctoral candidate. Unlike James Holmes, the Brown University student had passed his “prelims,” the oral examinations that determine whether or not a candidate will continue his education or be banished from academia. “I went through a couple of periods of serious depression in the lead-up to the exams,” my cigar store acquaintance admitted. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t.” There’s new evidence that my pipe-smoking Brown friend hit the nail on the head . . .
ABC reports that “accused movie theater gunman James Holmes purchased a high-powered rifle hours after failing a key oral exam at the University of Colorado.”
Of course, this is the first case (that we know of) of a failed doctoral candidate at a prestigious University going postal. And nothing justifies taking innocent life. That said, with a fellow doctoral candidate nodding and adding his own experience, my Brown friend explained how Holmes might have gone over the edge. [NB: I'm writing this from memory.]
“When you’re smart, you sail right through high school and college. You’re used to being the smartest guy in the room. You get to thinking you’re a genius. If you have any social issues you think ‘well I’m smarter than they are.’ You get a letter from the University for your doctorate and you’re really pleased with yourself. And then you get there and it hits.
“Suddenly, you’re struggling. I mean really struggling. I went through day after day of all-nighters. Just focusing on my work. Nothing but my work . . . I had real anxiety that I wouldn’t make it. There’s sleep deprivation. And depression. Bad bouts of depression. Self-doubt. What if I don’t make it? What am I then?”
So Holmes might have started with narcissism and then moved on to . . . what? Self-loathing?
“Could be. When he fails his prelims, he can’t deal with it. He concludes that it’s not him. It couldn’t be him. It’s the system. It’s them. They don’t recognize his genius. He snaps.”
This psychological narrative is speculative, but plausible. It could also be true that Holmes identified with Heath Ledger’s Joker: an outsider who resorted to violence to establish his dominance over the criminal fraternity, exploiting and dethroning the corrupt power brokers who gave it free reign.
Anyway, I asked the Brown guy if Colorado University or the doctoral system itself bears any responsibility for “causing” the spree killing. Should CU be more proactive about its doctoral students’ mental health? What could be done to prevent another incident like this one?
“There’s plenty of mental health resources available at any big school. It’s up to the student to reach out for it . . . I wouldn’t want to be visited by a social worker while I’m in the program . . .
“If anything, I think society is pushing too many people through their education. Everyone graduates high school, right? Everyone should have a college education, right? To make that happen, they lower the standards. Guys like Holmes are passed through thinking they’re king of the world, and then they hit a brick wall. If they can’t make it, they can fall to pieces.”
Again, there is no “justification” for Holmes’ horrific act. And even if we did reform our education system it wouldn’t prevent spree killers from carrying out their evil plans. If Holmes’ hadn’t have made it into grad school, something else—being fired from a job or turned down by a girl—may have served as a “trigger.” We’ll never know.
But we can know that there are social pressure points. Times and places where people are under tremendous stress. We can maintain awareness, remaining alert for those people who cannot cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs. We can pray for our safety, and the safety of our loved ones. And we can carry a firearm for those times and places when we can only rely on ourselves for our own protection.